Beginnings – the height of land

Don Parmeter’s aerial photograph of the Driftwood Creek headwaters.

The concept of watersheds has long fascinated me, as the many posts about Driftwood Creek illustrate. Back in 1977 when I worked for a Terrace newspaper, a regional district staffer, Doug Aberly, suggested provincial programs be managed in integrated watershed districts rather than in the piecemeal way jurisdictions were and still are divided. Long before that, Indigenous nations  divided territories along geographical lines of watersheds rather than the methods used in Canada’s Dominion Land Survey system which created townships and one-mile square sections of land, completely ignoring the natural boundaries provided by creeks, rivers, and mountains.

Years later, I opened a play, The Height of Land, with the image of a woman squatting to pee (women’s attention is more focused on the ground between our feet at these moments) and wondering which way her urine would run – if she was in just the right place (like the Columbia Icefields) could her urine eventually reach three oceans?  A shift of inches could produce an entirely different outcome – a little like that butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing.

Then I took a geography course from Rick Trowbridge at what was then Northwest Community College. He showed us a short film that began with the image of a single drop of water splatting onto the ground. Whether it was soaked up, frozen, evaporated, or ran into the nearest stream, it eventually returned to the sea via one watershed or another. While the term height of land sounds as if it should stand out – a hill or mountain – it is often the opposite.  Think the country north of Prince George along the nine-mile Giscome Portage where the watershed shifts from the Fraser to the Peace (via the Crooked and Parsnip rivers). Nothing dramatic there. And Rose Lake just west of Burns Lake, the division between the Fraser and Bulkley/Skeena river basins. Again, hardly a hill in sight.

Driftwood Creek’s beginnings are a little more dramatic where the watershed shifts from Driftwood Creek and the Bulkley to Cronin Creek and the Fulton and Babine rivers. A sensible boundary between Witsuwit’en and Nedut’en territory.

Lynn and I scrambled up above the cabins in Silverking Basin in 1977 on our first extended camping trip into the Babines. We fought the shintangle to reach the small lakes in the basin whose walls create one of the boundaries between those watersheds and also between Silverking and Grassy Mountain and the Twobridge (Reiseter) watershed.

Dan, the Rhebergen girls and Gisela Mendel.

Our eldest son, Daniel, went with me and Gisela Mendel in 1991/2 on a weekend trip into the basin. We joined Frank Rhebergen and his daughters to climb up the shintangle again into the headwaters. We made it up onto the flank of Cronin and crossed over to the Hyland Pass Trail – a route we tried to do in reverse the summer before last. We didn’t succeed, so Don Parmeter very kindly gave me the beautiful aerial photograph at the top of this post.


The kids with Silverking Basin and Harvey Mountain in the background.



Me and Dan below the glacier.


Lynn and Jim Pojar on Grassy Mountain, the Fulton side of the watershed divide.


All those watersheds draining into the Skeena Basin, into the Pacific Ocean.

And now we live right beside the same ocean. Here many creeks run straight to salt water without a river in sight. It’s a new kind of geography. For a river to get big, it needs to start far away from its final outlet. Once you think about it, it seems obvious, but coming originally from Powell River as I do, I didn’t really understand rivers. Powell River, the river that is, is one of the shortest in the world. Maybe that’s why I ended my novel, The Taste of Ashes, beside the Nautley River which drains Fraser Lake a mere 800 metres before it empties into the Nechako. Another “shortest” river. It felt something like home.


Gisela Mendel – June in Silverking Basin

Well, June is here and the creek is into its third and biggest freshet so far this year. Its roar fills the canyon and carries a freshet of cold air down from Silverking Basin. June is also the time of year when the phone calls from intrepid hiker Gisela Mendel would begin: the fairy slippers are in bloom, the clematis have appeared, the trail is open. And I’d (mostly) happily drop whatever chores I’d assigned myself to head outside with her.

I was by no means the only recipient of these calls. Mel and Evi Coulson sent me this contribution to the Driftwood Creek annals – the photos are from 20 years ago when the bunkhouse in the basin was still standing. The photos are theirs. Gisela died in April 2008.

Gisela in the bunkhouse – 1996. Eileen Astin has done a painting based on this and will enter it in the Canada 150 exhibit at the Smithers Art Gallery.

Hi Sheila,

Those early season camping and birding trips into Silverking Basin were initiated by Gisela. She was afflicted more than most with cabin fever and couldn’t wait to get up into the mountains at the first opportunity. She wouldn’t go on her own, but would prevail on victims to go with her, and that generally meant us. We have her diary for 1995 to 1997 (given to us by Rika) and she writes for 24th – 25th June, 1996: Silverking Basin with Evi & Mel Coulson (almost by force!) 

This was long before the Joe L’Orsa cabin was built, of course. We slept in the old mine cabin, which had one room reasonably well fixed up, including a wood stove donated by RSF Energy. The problem was the porcupines. You could hardy sleep at night because of the sound of them chewing at the plywood underneath the cabin. One year a porky actually got into the cabin and, being the male in the party, I had to escort it out. I managed to shoo it down the central corridor, but unfortunately the door at the end was closed. So, with the porky trapped at the end and using an aluminum shovel to protect my shins (I was still in my pajamas) I managed  to reach over the cowering animal to open the door where it obligingly left. However, 2 hours later it was back underneath chewing away.

Gisela and Mel outside the bunkhouse in 1996. The old foreman’s cabin is to the right – the headwaters of Driftwood Creek up behind.

Most times there was still snow in the basin at this time of year, but with Gisela in command we always had full days. We would hike up to Silverking Lake or to Hyland Pass and glissade down the snow banks.  Birds were already active, with the Fox Sparrows, Wilson’s Warblers, Varied Thrushes and Golden-crowned Sparrows in full song. It was actually the 1996 trip when I recorded birds for my bird song CD, including the Fox Sparrow and Blackpoll Warbler. The latter is not very common and when we first saw it we thought it was a chickadee. Only when it sang did we realize otherwise. I always tried to record the Dipper, which has a lovely (and loud) song, but it sings infrequently and I never managed to get it.

I should also mention Gisela’s unique way of wading creeks. At that time there was no bridge over the creek at the entrance to the basin (the one draining Silverking Lake) and it was usually in spate with the spring runoff. She would carry 2 heavy duty plastic garbage bags and pull them over her boots and tie them up around her thighs. She would then wade the creek as quickly as possible so that if the bags tore there was little time for water to enter. If a bag was damaged, she would simply replace it. This was much quicker than taking off  boots and socks, which is what we did.

She was a remarkable lady, in fact one of the most remarkable people I have met in my life. Her diary is very interesting. Mostly it just lists the hikes she did (about 3 a week), who went with her and the flowers she saw etc, but occasionally she pens something quite eloquent, such as this entry:

Microwave trip – July 7th, 1995. We went down soon to escape the rain and I walked enchantedly through these upper blooming alpine meadows: early & late flowers all out, a magic carpet of delights. The older I get – now 73 – the more I enjoy the privilege of seeing those flowers. The more I realize how limited these physical endeavors to the alpine will be for me the more I delight in these wonders.